Congress moved with a sense of urgency Wednesday on pending measures that define the country’s maritime zone in the wake of last week’s Chinese water cannon attack on Philippine fishing boats in the West Philippine Sea.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III urged President Rodrigo Duterte to certify as urgent Senate Bill 2289, which declares that the “maritime zones of the Philippines comprise the internal waters, archipelagic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.”
“In this way, the country can further preserve and protect the country’s maritime rights. Just like the intention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, this bill may preclude any unwarranted and undesirable dispute with other nations involving our maritime areas,” Sotto said.
“Let us make our own map, similar to China’s nine-dash line. Let’s insist on our own maritime zones. It is just a matter of really setting our foot down,” Sotto added.
The bill defines the Philippines’ internal waters and archipelagic waters, over which the Philippines “exercises sovereignty and jurisdiction.”
The country’s territorial sea, meanwhile, refers to the adjacent belt of sea measured 12 nautical miles from the baselines of the territorial sea, while the contiguous zone refers to the waters beyond and adjacent to its territorial sea and up to the extent of 24 nautical miles from the baselines.
Sotto accused China of bullying the Philippines with its repeated incursions not just in contested waters but also inside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“I hate to say this, but they are practically bullying us,” he said.
“They are supposed to be our neighbors, and we should be friendly to our neighbors, but what the Chinese Coast Guard is showing is that they do not have any regard for anything except what they think is their property,” the senator added.
In this zone, SB 2289 says the Philippine government would also exercise control necessary to “prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea” and “punish any infringement committed within its territory or territorial sea.”
The bill also seeks to institutionalize the country’s EEZ as defined under the Presidential Decree No. 1599, and to the extent consistent with the provisions of the UNCLOS.
The bill also maintains that the country has sovereign rights to explore and exploit the mineral, petroleum and non-living resources, and establish and use of artificial islands, and installations and other structures over its continental shelf, and other rights provided under existing laws and the UNCLOS.
The bill also asserts the July 12, 2016 arbitral award favoring the Philippines and scrapping China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim over the West Philippine Sea.
The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is consolidating measures defining the country’s maritime areas and territory.
One of these bills is House Bill 6156 or an “An Act declaring and defining the maritime zones under the jurisdiction of the Republic of the Philippines” of Deputy Speaker and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez.
He said the bill’s enactment would strengthen the country’s position on the West Philippine Sea.
“This will counter the Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire at perceived intruders in the entire South China Sea, which illegally includes our West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Rodriguez’s proposed definition of the country’s maritime territory includes the Chinese-occupied Scarborough or Panatag Shoal off Zambales and Pangasinan, locally known as Bajo de Masinloc, a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos.
In HB 6156, Rodriguez said the Philippines, as a signatory and party to the 1983 UNCLOS, “recognizes the establishment of various maritime zones and jurisdiction of coastal states, including its own, over which sovereignty and appurtenant sovereign rights can be exercised.”
“Thus, the country exercises sovereignty over its internal waters, archipelagic waters, territorial sea and airspace over it, as well as its seabed and subsoil in accordance with UNCLOS and other existing laws and treaties,” he said.
He added that the Philippines also exercises sovereign rights over its “contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, including the right to explore and exploit living and nonliving, organic or non-organic resources.”
The House leader pointed out that UNCLOS allows party-states to define their maritime territory.
Under the Rodriguez bill, the country’s maritime territory includes its 200-mile EEZ that is measured from its shoreline and its continental shelf.
A House committee has finished deliberations on the various measures that involved the country’s maritime boundaries.
Magdalo Rep. Manuel Cabochan III said “most of our proposals are based on the UNCLOS, and our own archipelagic baselines law.”
Cabochan was referring to bills that have been heard by the House committee on foreign affairs chaired by Zamboanga Sibugay Rep. Ann Hofer.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. on Wednesday said he considered the water cannon incident a form of harassment.
He said Chinese Coast Guard vessels had no right to go to Ayungin, and that it was they that were trespassing.
Esperon added that the Code of Conduct (COC) being worked out by member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is among the measures to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea.
A week after the incident, the Philippines resumed its resupply mission to the Ayungin Shoal.
However, reports said Chinese Coast Guard personnel aboard a rubber boat allegedly took pictures and videos of the mission.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian has vowed to look into the incident, an act which Manila views as a form of intimidation and harassment.
On Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the government has filed 231 diplomatic protests against Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea since 2016.
DFA Assistant Secretary Eduardo Meñez, in a text message to reporters,
said the notes verbales were all lodged during the time of President Rodrigo Duterte as of Nov. 18.
On Nov. 18, the DFA publicly condemned and protested the Chinese Coast Guard for blocking and firing a water cannon on two Philippine boats that were en route to resupply Filipino troops who are stationed at the Ayungin Shoal.
The boats, identified as Unaizah May 1 and Unaizah May 3, had to abort their mission on Nov. 16 after one of them had its outrigger damaged by the water cannon.
Lorenzana said the two resupply boats returned and safely arrived at the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin on Nov. 23.
The incident not only drew outrage from the Philippine government but also raised concern among several nations, including the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU).
Earlier, the EU called on all South China Sea parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law, particularly UNCLOS.
It also reaffirmed the 2016 arbitration award, noting that it found that the Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal “lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”
Apart from the Ayungin incident, the DFA early this year flagged China over the swarming of more than a hundred Chinese fishing vessels near the Julian Felipe Reef.
The Philippines, China, and several other littoral states are locked in a maritime dispute involving the resource-rich South China Sea.
Former International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) president Rüdiger Wolfrum, who was also a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that handed down the 2016 South China Sea ruling, said claimant states should sit down, negotiate, and agree upon a system that would govern the disputed area.
“Sure, protest is a way which is foreseen as a mechanism in international law but it is a one-sided approach,” Wolfrum said in a recent forum organized by the DFA and German Embassy in Manila.
“All states, including the Philippines and the PRC (People’s Republic of China), should sit together and seek ways out of this growing tension, which is existing in the South China Sea.”